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Behind the scenes at Melbourne International Comedy Festival

From returning favourites to stellar newcomers – this year's festival proves stand-up never stands still

Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Photograph: Jim Lee

Each autumn, the world’s third biggest comedy festival seems to take over every corner of Melbourne – from our biggest theatres to tiny rooms turned into makeshift comedy clubs. But what does it take to produce a festival with 616 shows, and what does it take to stand out and attract an audience? We spoke to some of the people working at this year’s festival – both behind the scenes and in front of a crowd – about one of our favourite events on Melbourne’s calendar.

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Margot Tanjutco in Vanity Fair Enough
Photograph: Stu Brown

First steps

If you’ve ever walked past Melbourne Town Hall during festival season, you’ve seen them: the flyering masses. Comedians, desperate for an audience, head down to Swanston Street and do their best to convince passersby to take a flyer and come to their show.

It’s both a festival tradition and a rite of passage for early career comedians; one not one relished by too many. You don’t get into comedy to learn how to market yourself, but if you don’t do it effectively, you can easily get lost in the throng.

In fact, until they’ve got management or a producer, most comedians have enough balls in the air to make a circus juggler weep: writing shows, promoting shows, finding venues, attracting reviewers, building a production, figuring out budgets.

Margot Tanjutco is one of those hoping to establish a name and start building an audience this year. It’s not Tanjutco’s first taste of the festival – she appeared in last year’s critically acclaimed queer indie musical Romeo Is Not the Only Fruit – but it’s the first time she’s going it alone, hoping to build an onstage career and eventually write for TV.

“I spent last year’s festival, and even the one before that, watching a lot of people’s solo shows and cabarets,” she says. “I just couldn’t take it anymore and had to write my own.”

In part, Tanjutico’s show – packed with songs, sketches and stand-up about shopping, fashion and consumer culture – takes on the catastrophic fallout of mass consumption, so you shouldn’t necessarily expect to see Tanjutco standing outside Town Hall foisting endless paper flyers on Melburnians. Her focus is, appropriately, on building a digital presence and brand for her show. Her passion for marketing – she studied communications and works in social media – could be one of the things that sets her apart from other newcomers.

“There are days when I’m just too, like, paralysed to write my show, and I try to do marketing on those days,” she says.

To hone her craft, Tanjutco last year sought guidance from award-winning comedian Tessa Waters, who offers a formal mentorship program for young comedians. Waters helped Tanjutco with her material – what’s funny and what isn’t – and demystifying good comedy writing.

“Comedy isn’t magic or anything,” Tanjutco says. “Well, sometimes it is, but there’s also a process I can use to write and rewrite.”

The other advantage Tanjutco has is her understanding of how the festival operates. While the world’s biggest acts come out to play, she knows it’s also a place where newcomers can find their feet with generally supportive crowds.

“I learned that it’s possible to survive the Comedy Festival. Every night is going to be different, but nobody is going to throw tomatoes at you if a joke doesn’t land the way you wanted it to.”

Margot Tanjutco: Vanity Fair Enough is at Malthouse Theatre Apr 9-21.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival general
Photograph: Jim Lee

Laughing in a broom cupboard

Because the festival is open access to Australian and New Zealand performers – meaning any local who can front up the $375 registration fee and find a venue gets into the festival – it can be hugely competitive. This year there are 616 shows at the festival, a significant step up from 56 shows in the inaugural program in 1987.

But the Comedy Festival, headed by long-standing director Susan Provan, isn’t leaving comedians entirely to their own luck and devices. They provide advice for new producers, manage a number of venues, and curate an international program.

The festival is very happy to say no to international acts who won’t add to a diverse and vibrant program. Especially if they’ll be competing with locals like Tanjutco.

“We don’t think there’s much point in a huge number of twenty-something, young, emerging stand-ups from the UK who don’t have a great deal that differentiates them from artists of the same level in Australia. It just splits the available audience,” Provan says.

To find those international acts, Provan spends several months a year travelling to comedy clubs in international cities and the world’s major comedy festivals – Melbourne stands alongside Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Montreal’s Just for Laughs as one of the “big three”.

This year, the international program includes regular favourites like Arj Barker, Ross Noble, Stephen K Amos and Urzila Carlson. There are also less frequent visitors: UK comic and TV presenter Simon Amstell, Netflix’s Maria Bamford and Trump-roaster extraordinaire Michelle Wolf.

But while those acts are in more conventional theatres, those without a massive public profile can often find themselves in unexpected rooms around Melbourne.

“One of my favourite things to do is find a broom cupboard and turn it into a venue,” Provan says. “We can turn anything into a venue.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Melbourne Town Hall, the festival’s home since 1996, where every available room becomes a venue – you can even find yourself sitting in a plush leather seat on the floor of the Melbourne City Council chambers.

One of Provan’s picks from the international program – the little-known Sarah Keyworth, who was last year nominated for best newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards – is performing in the Town Hall’s cloak room.

“It’s pretty remarkable that we’re allowed to take over the building. When we first proposed it to Melbourne City Council, luckily I don’t think they quite understood what we had in mind. Now it’s too late to take it back.”

Sarah Keyworth: Dark Horse is at Melbourne Town Hall Mar 28-Apr 21.

Simon Amstell: What is This? is at Arts Centre Melbourne Apr 9-21. 

Judith Lucy Vs Men Melbourne Comedy Festival 2019
Photograph: Supplied

“Every time it could be shit. Every time it could be not very funny”

Judith Lucy remembers No Waiter I Ordered the Avocado, the first solo show she ever performed, back in 1991, years before Town Hall was the festival’s home. To develop it, she applied for the prestigious Brian McCarthy Memorial Moosehead Award, available to Australian comedians wanting to try out a risky, innovative idea.

“If you get the money, it’s kind of a big deal and you really don’t want to blow it,” she says. “I had the double whammy of doing my first solo show and also feeling like I couldn’t do a shit job because I’d received this money. I was totally freaked out.”

That’s clear from some of the reviews she received, including one from Kaz Cooke.

“She said nice things about the show, but that it would’ve been nice if the comedian hadn’t just run out of the theatre. I was so uncomfortable about doing the show and people responding to it that I didn’t even really accept the applause at the end.”

It’s difficult to believe that the Judith Lucy Australia has come to know – with two and a half decades of successful stand-up shows – might be that uncomfortable on stage, but she says there are still creeping insecurities.

“The weird thing is that it always feels like you’re starting again every time you do a new show,” she says. “Every time it could be shit. Every time it could be not very funny. Every time you write jokes, do it in front of an audience, and wind up changing the show as it goes because some jokes work and some don’t; it’s a process that doesn’t really change.”

With her new show, Judith Lucy Vs Men, Lucy is recounting her dating history for audiences every night and asking them to vote on whether she should continue to date or “hang up her vagina for good”.

“Because I have been doing this ridiculous job for so damn long, I’m in this really lucky position where some people have been coming to see me for a long time, and they know what’s going on in my life. And you know what? I want their input.”

That puts her in an enviable position when it comes to festival time, where she’s able to pull big enough crowds to make a profit. Once comedians get into that sort of position, they can start branching out into TV, film, radio or writing, where they might be able to make even better money. But many at the festival, Lucy says, count themselves lucky to not lose money on their shows.

“People are just there to see each other’s shows, drink too much and sleep with other comedians. So that’s always good.”

Judith Lucy vs Men is at Arts Centre Melbourne Mar 28-Apr 14.

Ronny Chieng Tone Issues Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2019
Photograph: Supplied

“The beginning and end of my creative expression”

Ronny Chieng is one of many who’ve used the Comedy Festival as a platform to springboard themselves to international attention. He’s currently a senior correspondent on The Daily Show in the US, recently premiered his own sitcom, Ronny Chieng: International Student, and even had a sizeable role in Hollywood’s Crazy Rich Asians.

There’s now enough happening in his career to keep him busy without ever doing stand-up slog, but Chieng can’t resist the pull of the stage. He’s bringing his new show, Tone Issues, to Melbourne for two performances. They were initially going to be part of the festival, but he's since been cast in a sitcom in the US, requiring him to postpone the show until July.

“I’ve got some weird obsession with trying to make people laugh harder,” he says. “It’s 60 per cent insanity and 40 per cent because I started in performing through stand-up comedy. Everything I’ve managed to get comes from it, so for me stand-up is the beginning and end of my creative expression.”

Chieng was born in Malaysia but was studying commerce and law at the University of Melbourne when he first gave stand-up a go. After just a few months of doing shows here and there, he decided to enter the 2010 Raw Comedy competition, a festival institution that has featured acts such as Hannah Gadsby, Josh Thomas, Celia Pacquola, Luke McGregor and Rhys Nicholson.

He eventually became a finalist but at the same time was offered a corporate job in Kuala Lumpur.

“It was one of the rare moments when I had to actually make a decision: do I go do the corporate job, or do I do stand-up? I just felt very strongly I had to go do this competition.

Chieng wasn’t convinced he could make a career from comedy, but needed to test the waters. He’s established a strong career and fanbase over the last decade, but says he still feels a certain pressure.

“When you’re starting out, it’s just a battle to try to get people to come and watch you. You’ve got that cool hustle and that feeling of ‘well, I’ve got nothing to lose, I can go make my mark’. And then when you’re known it’s like ‘oh fuck, all these people are coming to watch me now, and I have all these fans I could lose.’”

But he says he’s hugely grateful that people are still wanting to hear his perspective on all sorts of subjects.

“The real truth is that great performers are doing it because they’ve got something they want to say, whether it’s to five people or 500 people.”

Ronny Chieng: Tone Issues is at Hamer Hall on Jul 6.

Steph Tisdell: The Pyramid Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2019
Photograph: Supplied

The Deadly Funny tradition

According to Steph Tisdell, having something to say is just the start when you’re an Indigenous comedian. There’s a groundswell of talent out there, but she says there aren’t a heap of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stand-up acts breaking through at comedy festivals – often because of fear that their nuance will be missed by predominantly white audiences.

Deadly Funny is a comedy festival initiative that’s been running for 14 years and aims to, in part, break down some of those barriers and highlight emerging Indigenous comedians. There are heats all around Australia – including in Darwin and the Katherine – before a grand final showcase at the festival.

Tisdell entered the competition in 2014 and took out the title. This year she’ll be working alongside the contestants and mentoring them through the process.

“The truth is, blackfellas have a particular lexicon we reserve for when we’re around mob,” she says. “It’s so refreshing to be back around black faces, talking the way my family does without fearing being misunderstood.”

Tisdell says once Indigenous comedians can break through, they often have perspectives that haven’t been heard in mainstream comedy spaces.

“Comedy is said to be tragedy plus time. And the sad reality is that we’re still so close – timewise – to so many traumas and still feel the effects of disadvantage, that there’s a lot ot be used as inspiration.

“We’re now able to share those stories and realise they are relatable and that’s why it’s incredibly empowering. Deadly Funny closes gaps in a really soft, gentle and loving way.”

Tisdell is performing her second solo show at the festival this year, looking at how the social pyramid works and tackling unspoken privilege. Last year she was nominated for the festival’s best newcomer award for her critically acclaimed show Identity Steft, which saw Tisdell talk about her heritage – she’s a Murri woman with an Aboriginal mother and a white father – and the way her identity shapes how people respond to her.

“If I can be blunt, when I wrote it I couldn’t have given a shit about whether judges came, whether they liked it or not,” she says. “Selfishly, the show was an opportunity for me to just let it all out. It was raw, vulnerable and authentically my story.”

Steph Tisdell: The Pyramid is at Victoria Hotel Mar 28-Apr 21.

Deadly Funny National Final and Showcase is at the Forum Apr 6.

Hannah Gadsby Douglas 2019 supplied image
Photograph: Supplied

Growing diversity and the Gadsby effect

While Provan says the festival has always been more diverse than its international counterparts – and has long had women strongly represented in the program – it’s continuing to broaden its outlook.

“We’ve been taking the Melbourne Comedy Festival Roadshow to Asia for around 15 years, but it’s only in the last five or six that we’ve started bringing the performers we met while touring back to Australia, and making a concerted effort to build the Asian program here,” she says.

In particular, stand-up comedy has grown incredibly quickly in India in the last few years. Provan says the key to its popularity is that the Indian population is social media-savvy and comedians are reaching audiences with social media-friendly content.

There are now comedians coming to Melbourne specifically for local Indian audiences. Rahul Subramanian is performing the first week of his show, Is This Even Comedy? in English and the second week (Apr 16-21) in Hinglish, a blend of English and Hindi spoken by vast swathes of the population.

That broadening out of perspectives – and challenge to the straight white male boys’ club of comedy – has been happening for decades now. It had a significant step forward over the last few years, thanks largely to Hannah Gadsby’s much-lauded show Nanette, which started at the festival in 2017 and was turned into a globe-conquering Netflix special in 2018.

She challenged the homophobic patriarchy that she’d often come up against in her life and in the comedy world, and declared that she’d no longer be doing the sort of self-deprecating comedy that was a pivotal part of her early career.

This year she’s bringing her new show, Douglas, to the festival, and it’s likely to be the hottest ticket.

Nanette gave inspiration to a lot of people to think ‘yes, I can’,” Provan says. “Obviously it’s not to copy Hannah, but feel confident about talking about things, and being able to make them into entertainment.”

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas is at Arts Centre Melbourne and Hamer Hall Mar 27-Apr 7.

Rahul Subramanian: Is This Even Comedy? is at Chinese Museum Apr 9-21.

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